A significant debate has recently erupted in American politics and the press over whether the authors of the Constitution intended for the new government to protect slavery or to oppose it. Historians are now stepping in to examine what really happened during and after the Constitutional debates. But whatever the intent of the Constitution’s authors, the answer will not be found in the original document or discussions of it. Court decisions, legislation, and social change all caused the Constitution to develop over time. During the years before the Civil War, constitutional law increasingly supported the institution of slavery. This happened not because the Constitution was pro-slavery per se, but because it was pro-property. A little known Supreme Court case, The Antelope, illustrated this process as the justices tried to untangle the status of a “cargo” of Africans captured at sea by an American ship a decade after the United States had outlawed the slave trade.
In 1819, an American privateer captured the Antelope, a Spanish slaver from Cuba off the coast of Africa. There, sailors loaded the privateer, called the Arraganta, and the slave ship Antelope with 331 captives they had taken from both Spanish and Portuguese vessels. Intending to sell the captives as slaves, the commanders of the two ships set out across the Atlantic. The Arraganta wrecked on the coast of Brazil, but the Antelope continued on until June 1820, when a United States Revenue Cutter captured it off the coast of Florida. The cutter’s crew found 281 living captives aboard the Antelope. Since January 1808, the international slave trade had been illegal under American law, so the Antelope’s commanders were potentially criminals. Officers brought the ship into Savannah where they threw the slave traders in prison and the U.S. Marshal held the captives pending judicial determinations of their fate.
In Savannah, the Vice-Consuls of Spain and Portugal filed claims to the surviving 258 captives, who were worth a fortune if the courts determined they were slaves. The Revenue Cutter’s captain filed a claim for a share of the monetary value of the enslaved captives. He asked for “salvage,” as it was known, a type of reward for saving the ship and “cargo.” Even the privateer who had commanded the captured Antelope filed a claim. There was good money in this business, and Savannah had benefited from the capture of illegal slave ships before.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, United States Attorney Richard W. Habersham entered the case, arguing that the captives were free human beings who should be returned to Africa. An eight year legal struggle followed, a struggle that included three trips to the United States Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the captives worked as slaves in Savannah homes and on local plantations, surely following the legal struggle for their freedom.
In 1825, the case first reached the Supreme Court. Francis Scott Key, at this time better known as a leading attorney rather than as the author of the Star Spangled Banner, and Attorney General William Wirt argued for the captives’ freedom. Key claimed the captives had a natural right to liberty. “By the law of nature, all men are free,” he insisted. If a cargo of white men were cast upon our shores, Key asked, would we assume they were slaves? How then was a cargo of Africans any different? Both lawyers asserted that under United States law, under international law, and by natural law incorporated in the Constitution, the captives were free and should be returned to Africa.
Their opponents, John M. Berrien and Charles J. Ingersoll, asked the Court to consider the implications of Key and Wirt’s arguments. Ingersoll, a former and future U.S. congressman, argued that international law permitted the slave trade. John M. Berrien went further. A slave-owning Senator from Georgia, Berrien argued that if Key was right about the law of nature, then the nation itself would collapse. Slavery, he said, “is protected by that constitution, forms a basis for your representatives, is infused into your laws, and mingles itself with all the sources of authority…Paradoxical as it may appear, they [slaves] constitute the very bond of your union. The shield of your constitution protects them from your touch.” Arguments continued before the Court for five days.
Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the Court’s opinion. Explaining that this was a case in which “the sacred rights of liberty and of property come in conflict with each other,” Marshall suggested he had no choice in his decision. “This Court must not yield to feelings which might seduce it from the path of duty,” he said, “and must obey the mandate of the law.” At first, it seemed that the Court might side with Key and Wirt on behalf of the government. Marshall did not take up Berrien’s argument that the Constitution specifically protected slavery, and he further admitted that the slave trade and perhaps even slavery itself was contrary to the law of nature. But that was as much ground as the Court conceded to the idea of freedom for the captives. Marshall ruled that positive law, that is, law enacted by human authority, eclipsed natural law and the rights of individuals. There was clear positive law controlling the fate of the captives in the Antelope case, and under it the captives were property. The legal condition of property superseded human rights. Key, and his argument for freedom, lost.
Historians, lawyers, and judges may argue over whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery document, but there is little question that it was a pro-property document. If positive law could strip human beings of their natural rights and render them property, then the Constitution would protect that property. Herein lay the dark implications of the Antelope decision. If people were made property by positive law, then slaveholders could expect the federal government and the Constitution to protect that property. Congress, with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, codified this understanding of slaveholders’ property rights. Then, the Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision fully embraced slavery as a national institution.
Through legislation and the courts, by 1857 slavery was accepted as part of the Constitution by both the Supreme Court and the federal Congress. The changing Constitution produced conflict, especially over its meaning for the western Territories, conflict that proved politically impossible to resolve. War erupted, but war alone was not enough to remove slavery from the nation’s organic law. Only an amendment to the Constitution forbidding slavery could do so. This, by 1864, both Congress and Abraham Lincoln fully understood.
See all of the pieces in our series: Slavery and the Constitution.